The Adventurous School

The Adventurous School: Vision, community and curriculum for primary education in the twenty-first century

Jane Reed, Kathy Maskell, David Allinson, Rosemary Bailey, Fernanda Bates, Siân Davies and Catherine Gallimore

London: Institute of Education, 2012
ISBN 978-0-85473-916-5

The Adventurous School is a collection of ‘uplifting stories’ which tell of the journey taken by three outstanding UK primary schools seeking to develop their excellence in innovative, creative ways. The book is presented as a reflective narrative, which gives the reader a true sense of the undulating, uncertain path upon which the schools travelled. Presented in four parts, the writers share their exploration within the themes of community, curriculum, leadership and vision,while ensuring that children’s learning and development remain firmly at the heart of all they do.

The aims of the book are not easy to boil down to a tasty sound byte, or even a neat, achievable set of intentions. But there is good reason for this. The overreaching project aim was to ‘equip children to be 21st century citizens’ and, so, the authors avoid following tight lines of inquiry, or systematic investigation of impact, in order to remain open to unforeseen opportunities. Instead, The Adventurous Schoolexplores broad questions about children’s present and future needs, with reference to theories and philosophies of education. The text bravely questions the purposes of education, given the current context of international economic uncertainty, and goes so far as to cite foreboding predictions regarding the sustainability of humanity (p.19). Indeed, the authors draw upon a comprehensive reference list, enabling them to shape their thinking and justify decisions as their journey progresses.

As a result, this is a hugely valuable text both for teachers and for school leaders. It convinces us that creative, confident steps towards adventurous school improvement can be taken, and justified. It reassures us that we need not feel constrained by dumped targets or league tables when fully committed to driving improvement, and reminds us that classroom accountability must not impinge on the provision of ‘purposeful, empowering… authentic, lively, active learning’ (pp.3-4) experiences for our children. Rather, we should look beyond statistics and question the very factors which form our schools, in order to give ourselves time to reflect on our shared understanding of ‘outstanding’ provision in a modern educational context. What is the school’s purpose? How should the ‘whole child’ be developed? How valid are the contexts in which literacy and numeracy are being taught?

And here lies the strength of the book: The adventure took our school teams beyond leadership skills, competent self-evaluation and high-quality teaching – all prerequisites of a school embarking on such a journey. Instead, each schoolteam involved in this project took time to refocus their thinking and refine their ideas into an articulate realisation of collective imaginings beyond practical consideration of what is possible, or even necessary, but closely tied to their school’s shared values and vision. While acknowledging the context of change across the current educational landscape, and the policies, reviews and consultations which are set to define twenty-first century education, the authors boldly reassess and redefine safeguarding, community cohesion, core learning skills, and the roles children and staff play in school improvement.

Occasionally the writing adopts an imperious air - for example, the suggestion is made that only by becoming adventurous might schools ‘become adaptive… and able to look the future firmly in the face’ (p.190). Also, at times the authors proclaim their schools’ list of recent achievements in the manner of a pre-inspection phone conversation with Ofsted. However, the fleeting sense of superciliousness is tempered by the authors’ explicit exposition of the challenges they, their schools and staff encountered on their adventurous journey; the challenges all schools deal with when driving to achieve more highly, and provide excellence. The authors acknowledge the limits of their own understanding of thefuture needs of their learners and this honesty, presented throughout the discussion, results in an accessible account.

In the book’s concluding chapter, the authors draw together their school improvement work into a six-point framework for action and an ‘overview’ of the aspects which go to make a school an adventurous one. Although there was perhaps no need to summarise the five-year evolutionary process described by the book into neat categories – the book would certainly stand without this – themessage is clear that each school must find their own way forward, and that these tools might simply ‘help clear pathways… that the adventure can take place’ (p.195). But take place it must, for the education we provide for our children will either support them through, or prevent them from coping with the challenges their generation will face in years to come (p.16).

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